Director: James Wan
Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison
DC have had a tough ol’ time of it in the past five years. Their 2013 Superman reboot in the form of Man of Steel started something that gave a lot of fans that thing his ‘S’ stands for: hope. Mostly for the future of the DC Extended Universe’s characters, but also partly for something to watch that isn’t Marvel-based. After Christopher Nolan’s highly successful Dark Knight trilogy, there was a lot riding on Henry Cavill’s Superman. Unfortunately, it’s all been downhill since then, with 2016’s Batman v Superman, 2016’s Suicide Squad and 2017’s Justice League all performing ok at the box office but being utterly panned by critics and fans alike. The only exception has been 2018’s Wonder Woman, proving that DC are capable of getting at least one character right (more or less). With Aquaman being their latest hero to get his very first solo movie, does Wonder Woman have some (friendly) competition, or has the DCEU officially run aground?
After running (swimming?) away from an arranged marriage in her underwater kingdom of Atlantis, Queen Atlanna (Kidman) meets and falls in love with average-joe lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Morrison). Together they have a child, Arthur (Momoa). While Arthur is still very young, the family are attacked by soldiers from Atlantis who have been sent to take Atlanna back under the sea. Realising the danger she’s putting her family in, Atlanna returns to Atlantis in order to keep them out of harm’s way. As he grows, Arthur gets to grips with his abilities (breathing under water, strength, speed, talking to marine life) under the tutelage of his mother’s loyal follower Vulko (Dafoe), and it’s through Vulko that Arthur learns his mother was put to death for the “crime” of having a half-breed child. As a result, Arthur grows up resenting Atlantis and wanting nothing to do with it. That is, until an underwater war comes knocking at his door, with Atlantis’s current King, Orm (Wilson), leading the charge against other underwater kingdoms and, eventually, the surface world. Recruited and guided by Princess Mera (Heard), Arthur reluctantly lends a hand to the cause and learns far more about what it means to be half-human, half-Atlantean than he originally thought.
Aquaman, as a character, isn’t one of DC’s strongest, not by a long shot. He’s often the butt of jokes and ridiculed in movies, TV shows, comics and general pop culture (check out Robot Chicken’s Best of… Aquaman from their DC special for a great example). And, it must be said, this film really did not do the character any favours. The one good thing they’ve done for him is to cast Jason Momoa as Arthur, but even Khal Drogo himself isn’t enough to validate him. When Momoa first appears, the character does seem like he could be credible, with Momoa’s general look and performance being grittier and more appealing overall than the comics’ blonde-haired version, but unfortunately it doesn’t last. He’s given some cheesy one-liners, an awful “arch-nemisis” in the form of Black Mantra (Abdul-Matteen II), whose very presence is utterly pointless, offering bugger-all to the story other than to remind us that Arthur is only (half)human when it comes to making decisions, and a plot that is overly long, messy and non-sensical.
As awesome as some of the graphics are, smoothly making it look like everyone is underwater, the overall aesthetic of the film is far too reminiscent of The Little Mermaid (including an octopus playing the drums during a battle scene…). The bright underwater colours are dazzling at times, but it completely draws away from the tone of the film, which the writers themselves seemed to be confused about. There’s a seriousness to it all, with themes such as being from two opposing worlds and not fitting in, dealing with moralistic obligations and environmentalism, but the attempt at light-heartedness puts a sour taste in the mouth. The DCEU has long been criticised for trying to make things darker in a universe that is not nearly as successfully dark as the MCU, and their attempts to balance light and dark have just not hit the mark. It would be impossible not to compare DC and Marvel in this regard, particularly as Marvel have dominated the film industry where characters and stories are concerned, and it’s a legacy that DC are constantly trying to match but continue to fail to do so. In some opinions, the writers just haven’t been true to the core aspects of the characters. It can’t be said that they haven’t been true to Aquaman, however, as he is a bit of a ridiculous character and, intended or not, this is pretty much how he comes across. Having said that, they had the chance to really turn him into something strong and believable, but sadly that’s not been the finished product (I dare you not to burst out laughing at the final line of dialogue).
The film boasts a cast of fantastic actors, but most of them have taken on roles that are far beneath their level of talent. As mentioned, Momoa was great casting for Arthur, his general appearance and rough performance providing something perhaps not standardly expected for Aquaman, but the character did not live up to the aesthetic that Momoa provides. He seems to have fun with the role, giving every scene his all and delivering said cheesy one-liners with great conviction, but it just falls short of being genuinely entertaining, audiences perhaps laughing at him rather than with him (and the orange and green suit really does not become him). Heard as Mera is fairly likable: in some ways it would have been preferable for this to be her movie rather than Aquaman’s. She’s a strong female lead, following what she believes is right rather than going with the negative flow. Kidman is provided initially with some CGI de-aging (as is apparently all the rage now rather than just hiring a younger actor for certain parts), but frankly the woman has barely aged in thirty years anyway. Her appearance as Atlanna is, in a word, random, as it’s a fairly small role for her. But, like Momoa, she gives it her all and her performance is pleasant, for want of a better word. Both Dafoe and Wilson were given pivotal roles, however their characters Vulko and Orm, respectively, did not live up to their abilities as sturdy performers. Vulko provides exposition in a way that verges on patronising, and Orm is frankly the DCEU’s silliest looking antagonist since Wonder Woman’s Aries-with-the-moustache.
If you haven’t seen Batman v Superman and/or Justice League (at least Justice League) then you will be utterly thrown in the deep end (pun entirely intended) with Aquaman. His origin story is there, albeit broken up throughout the film in flashbacks, but the tsunami of information that director Wan pours on the audience is overwhelming. There is constantly so much going on in this film that if you don’t keep up you may find yourself zoning out (or just staring at Momoa for a little over two hours). It’s starting to feel fairly standard now that the DCEU keep putting out films that they think audiences will go for/will stand up against Marvel rather than staying true to the characters or providing opportunities for more deserving characters (still waiting for the Cyborg movie, guys…). With talk of more reboots in the future, the possible departure of Cavill as Superman and the travesty that is a Suicide Squad 2, the DCEU is in disarray, and Aquaman is not the guy to save it. It’s probably best he now stays in his underwater kingdom and talks to his fishy advisors on what to do next, because clearly the writers behind these DCEU movies haven’t a clue.